After months of small incremental steps towards reopening, New York is seeing the rapid-fire lifting of pandemic related restrictions this week, and the end of staunch safety regulations that have come to define the “new normal” since March 2020.
Multiple statewide safety restrictions are being lifted as of Wednesday, most notably the longstanding indoor mask mandate, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday. In accordance with new CDC guidance, vaccinated New Yorkers will no longer be required to wear masks at most indoor locations, including at restaurants and bars, movie theaters, gyms, grocery stores, and places of worship, Cuomo said.
“We have to reopen,” Cuomo said in a news conference on Monday. “Unvaccinated people should continue to wear a mask and social distance, but if you are vaccinated you are safe—no masks, no social distancing.”
Capacity limits for both indoor and outdoor events are being significantly expanded, with the limit for private indoor gatherings increasing from 10 to 50 people, and the limit for larger gatherings expanding to 250 people indoors, and 500 people outdoors.
Masks are still “strongly recommended” in settings where the vaccination status of other people isn’t known, and are still required in crowded settings including subways, schools, and medical facilities. Additionally, businesses will still be able to individually enforce their own mask rules (and some large venues can require that patrons prove vaccination status), an issue that has raised concerns over enforcement and added difficulty for service workers.
“The easing of restaurant restrictions is positive news that we’re heading towards a hopeful recovery,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, in a statement emailed to MarketWatch. “However, restaurateurs still await some guidance from the government about how they will implement these changes and then do so in a way in which their employees and customers are as comfortable as possible.”
New York City Councilmember Mark Levine raised concerns on Twitter that ending indoor mask requirements at this time “will put workers, the immunocompromised, and kids at risk,” adding that the state “[s]hould have waited a little longer until we made further progress on vaccination and reducing cases.” (Levine’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
Additionally, the NYC Hospitality Alliance and state Sen. Jessica Ramos have introduced legislation that would grant temporary liquor licenses to allow restaurants to re-open sooner, and extend the legality of alcohol service for outdoor dining as well as “to go” drinks, all with an eye to supporting a restaurant industry that took a battering over the past year. (Neither the governor’s office nor the mayor’s office immediately responded to requests for comment on the proposed legislation, or safety concerns over the end of indoor masking requirements.)
New York City’s subway system, meanwhile, returned to its pre-pandemic 24/7 service schedule in the early hours of Monday morning, and the midnight curfew on outdoor dining was lifted the same day. (The curfew will remain in place for indoor dining until the end of May, when it will also be lifted.)
At major sporting venues like Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center, Cuomo announced that a minimum of 50% of seating will be reserved for vaccinated people, who will not be required to social distance, while unvaccinated attendees will still be required to wear masks and maintain six feet of distance.
“This is up to the individual venue, and I would encourage operators to go higher than 50% [of attendees] vaccinated,” Cuomo said, noting that requiring a higher percentage of attendees be vaccinated will increase venues’ capacity by eliminating social distancing requirements.
The New York City Marathon will also return in November at 60% capacity, Cuomo said.